Living in the Now

The concept of ‘living in the now’ or ‘being in the present’ has its roots in Eastern philosophies, but has gained popularity in mainstream western thinking in recent years because of the writings of people such as Eckhart Tolle, Jon Kabat-zinn and many others.

The increasing popularity of the concept – also referred to as ‘mindfulness’ – has quickly promoted its status from an esoteric concept to an abundantly used ‘power-phrase’ in the area of ‘self-help’. Many people are still confused by the concept and don’t fully understand it. So what does ‘living in the now’ actually mean and why and how should introduce it into our lives?

What Does ‘Living in the Now’ Mean?

Essentially, ‘living in the now’ means:

  • Ensuring that your awareness is completely centred on the here and now. You are not worrying about the future or thinking about the past. When you live in the now, you are living where life is happening.
  • Being aware of your present. Being conscious of what’s going on around you and inside you while you go through your day. Paying attention to your life as it unfolds in the present moment.
  • Realizing that life only happens in the present. ‘Past’ and ‘future’ are only concepts. You cannot live in the past or in the future – you can only live in the now.
  • Having the understanding that the past and future are illusions – they don’t exist. As the saying goes “Tomorrow never comes”. Tomorrow is only a concept. Tomorrow never comes because time is always now.
  • Going beyond your stream of thoughts which always lead you to past memories or expectations about the future and instead becoming aware of the freshness of the present moment.
  • Directing your life because you are no longer ‘absent’. You are no longer captive of your frenetic thoughts or hijacked by illusory daydreaming.
  • Connecting with your inner space – the space or gap between your thoughts. That stillness of being that we feel when for a moment we stop identifying ourselves with our thoughts.
  • Have you ever been so engrossed in something that it seemed like everything else just disappeared? Living in the moment is about creating that state of mind at any time. It’s about slowing down, and trying to savour the present.

How do you Know if you are Not ‘Living in the Now’?

We know we are not living in the now when we are doing the following:

  • Worrying about things that have yet to come/worrying about the future.
  • Beating ourselves up for mistakes that we’ve made, no matter that much time has passed.
  • Living in the past
  • Living with regret

Why Should we Strive to ‘Live in the Now’?

The following quote sums up why it is important to live in the now:

“The secret of health for both mind and body is not to mourn for the past, worry about the future, but to live in the present moment wisely and earnestly.”

Living in the present has a dramatic effect on our emotional well-being and our physical health. It’s long been known that the amount of mental stress we carry has a detrimental impact on our health. When we are living in the present, we are living in a state of acceptance. We are accepting life as it is now, not how we wish it could have been.

When you’re living in acceptance, you realize everything is complete as it is. You can forgive yourself for the mistakes you’ve made, and you can have peace in your heart knowing that everything that should happen will happen.

Living in the now means living life with more joy and enthusiasm. When we are more present and conscious in our lives we do things with better quality and with greater enthusiasm. Better decisions are made which results in life being directed towards more positive ends.

What can you do to Help Yourself to ‘Live in the Now’?

The following practices all help one to live in the now:

  • Meditation - Meditation is a powerful tool to practice mindfulness and being present. If you meditate, keep doing it; you already have the mind tools to be more present. There is a lot of tranquil music created to assist with meditation. Music made for meditation can help us bring our attention back to the present and clear our mind. If you do not meditate or do not wish to learn meditation, you can still find ways to access your inner space.
  • Deep Conscious Breathing - Sometimes being conscious of two or three full breaths is enough to anchor your mind in the present. (Tip: Be sure that your outward breath is longer than your inward breath). Conscious breathing means putting your awareness on your breathing as you take three deep, slow, controlled breaths.

    As you focus your attention on your breath, you’ll notice that breathing is neither voluntary nor involuntary. It is something that you do, but at the same time something that ‘does you’. It is co-creative. Practice conscious breathing to bring your mind back to the present.
  • Centering prayer – a form of prayer where you are consciously in the present moment.
  • Yoga – On the physical level, yoga postures, called asanas, are designed to tone, strengthen, and align the body. These postures are performed to make the spine supple and healthy and to promote blood flow to all the organs, glands, and tissues, keeping all the bodily systems healthy. On the mental level, yoga uses breathing techniques (pranayama) and meditation (dyana) to quiet, clarify, and discipline the mind.

Tips to ‘Live in the Now’:

  • Give your immediate surroundings your gentle attention. Accept whatever comes up without tension, judgment or friction. Let it be. It doesn’t mean letting things passively pass you by, but on the contrary, it means being actively yourself in the present moment.
  • Talk to yourself in the present tense “I am now reading an article”. This gives the command to your subconscious to turn its attention to the present and stop wandering about in other places. This also prevents procrastination.
  • Don’t think that life will happen some other day or that your goal is still to come or around the corner. This distracts you from taking action now.
  • Don’t try to quiet your mind. When we try to quiet the mind, we just disturb it all the more. Instead, simply witness your thoughts as if they are pure sound. Don’t try to judge your thoughts; there are no good thoughts or bad thoughts. Simply witness them as if they were noise. (Not having the urge to try to quiet our minds is one of the hardest things to do when living in the moment).
  • Don’t identify with your thoughts – you are not your thoughts. Too often we identify ourselves with our thoughts; we actually believe we are the dialogue inside our mind. However, we are much more than just our thoughts. We are the force that moves through our mind, spirit and body. Knowing this helps us overcome our fear of quietness and silence; we can have peace knowing that when our minds are quiet, we are not losing touch with ourselves.
  • Practice mindfulness. This isn’t so much of a tip as it is a requirement in living in the present. Practicing mindfulness means we practice our awareness in all our actions. Whether we are washing dishes or tying our shoes, our mind is focused on whatever we are doing. We are not thinking about the bills that we have to pay, or the phone call we need to make when we get to the office. We are simply living in the moment.
  • Take notice of the world – observe it. No matter what you're doing, notice the moments that surround you. Maybe on your way to work or school, you go over a beautiful bridge, or you get a view of the sunrise behind the city buildings. When you walk down the street, look at the way the light reflects off the buildings, the tree line, and the birds that manage to nest in the branches. The simple act of tilting your chin can give you a whole new perspective on the place you live.

    Really look at a flower. You know it’s pretty, but what is pretty? What does the flower smell like, besides itself? How many petals does it have? Do the leaves spiral up the stem like a staircase or branch out on opposite sides every now and then? Are there any bugs going about their lives on this flower? Do you think they’re even aware of your existence?
  • Take notice of the world – Listen to it. The birds, the sounds of one car passing, the conversations of distant strangers, the cracks and creaks of the building as it heats and cools, the planes overhead, the footsteps of passers-by. Listen in the moment to what is all around you.

    Realizing that whether these things are great or small, you are part of that singular moment when all these things come together. When you realize you are a part of every moment that you are living through, you'll be almost there. When you stop realizing it, and just live it, you will be all the way there.
  • Do one thing at a time. Single-task, don't multi-task. When you're gardening, just garden. When you're eating, just eat. When you're bathing, just bathe. Don't try to achieve a few tasks while eating or bathing or driving. Zen proverb: "When walking, walk. When eating, eat."
  • Do it slowly and deliberately. You can do one task at a time, but also rush that task. Instead, take your time, and move slowly. Make your actions deliberate, not rushed and random. It takes practice, but it helps you focus on the task.
  • Do less. If you do less, you can do those things more slowly, more completely and with more concentration. If you fill your day with tasks, you will be rushing from one thing to the next without stopping to think about what you do. But you're busy and you can't possibly do less, right? You can. I've done it, and so have many busy people. It's a matter of figuring out what's important, and letting go of what's not.
  • Put space between things. Related to the "Do less" rule, but it's a way of managing your schedule so that you always have time to complete each task. Don't schedule things close together – instead, leave room between things on your schedule. That gives you a more relaxed schedule, and leaves space in case one task takes longer than you planned.
  • When you're talking to someone, be present. How many of us have spent time with someone but have been thinking about what we need to do in the future? Or thinking about what we want to say next, instead of really listening to that person? Instead, focus on being present, on really listening, on really enjoying your time with that person.
  • Focus on what you are doing. Even if you're just walking, or wiping down the counter, or brushing the cat, how does it feel? There's probably some kind of head talk (commentary) running through your mind and it probably has to do with something other than what you're doing. Let those thoughts go and focus on what is (not on what was, or what could be). In Buddhism, this is referred to as ‘mindfulness’.
  • Visualize all the good things that are going to happen to you today. Going to give a presentation? Imagine the laughs you’ll get for your jokes and the ovation you’ll receive at the end. Going to have a busy day of cleaning? Imagine how good it’ll feel to sit down with a cup of tea and admire your living space when it’s all done.
  • Commit random, spontaneous acts of kindness. Whether it's donating R5.00 to a charity, picking up litter, or helping victims of natural disasters, keep alert in every moment of your day for some way in which you can make the world a better place. Even the smallest thing, like complimenting someone, can bring joy. It's the most spontaneous and unexpected acts of kindness that produce the greatest impact and you can only be sensitive to those kinds of opportunities when you're living in the moment.
  • Minimize activities that dull your awareness of the moment. What are you doing that allows your mind to run away from the present? For most people, watching television puts you in a passive state of mind, and time slips right by. Don't zone out; zone in. Do things that are active, and that encourage you to look around and engage the world in that moment. Gardening, playing a game, knitting, and playing an instrument are all activities that lend themselves to mindfulness.

    Select your absolute favourite TV shows, write them into your schedule, and only turn on the TV at those times. Channel-surf when you’re bored? Get a hobby. Watch TV while you eat dinner? Cook yourself something special and savour every bite of it.

    Choose at least one day a week to turn off your cell phone, your computer, your radio, your TV, and whatever other gadgets you use to distract yourself. Spend that day riding your bike to a café, gardening, having a friend over for tea, drawing something you see out the window, or exploring a new area of your town or city.
  • Smile when you wake up. You can set the tone of appreciation and awareness for the next 24 hours by simply waking up and smiling. There's scientific proof that the expressions that you make with your face can actually influence how you feel.
  • Be thankful for what is. When you find yourself wishing for something you don't have, or wishing your life would be different, start your quest for your wish by being thankful for what is already in your life. This will bring you back to the present moment. Make a list of what you are thankful for right now, even if all you can think of is that you are alive and can breathe. If you are always looking beyond what is in the present moment to what once was or what might be, you will miss the gifts right in front of you. If you are thankful for what is, you'll be happy to be in the moment – instead of dreaming about being happy in some other future time or place.

    If you’re living in the past, you can’t do anything about it, it’s gone. If you’re worrying about the future, you’re living somewhere that doesn’t exist. It hasn’t happened yet. If you want to change your life, the only place you can do it is in the present. But first you need to accept life as it is.

“If you worry about what might be, and wonder what might have been, you will ignore what is.” 

  •  Understand that it’s impossible to be present all the time. This should not be your goal. But it is possible to be more present by living more consciously and practicing awareness. The beginning is now. It always is!

How can I ‘Live in the Now’ and yet Still Plan for the Future?

We do need to plan and prepare for our futures in terms of education, skills, finances and so on, but we can’t live in the future. Our focus must be in the now.

When we set our goals and create our vision for the future, we must then break down the big tasks into small manageable chunks, in such a way that each chunk keeps us in the present (rather than distracting us from the present). In other words, the size of our tasks should keep us focused on the present and not point to the future.

Don’t set goals because you believe that achieving those goals will increase your happiness in the future. Rather set goals to increase the happiness you are already enjoying in the present moment. Set goals because you are so passionate about the work you are doing that you want to share it with as many people as possible. Don’t look to your work to make you happy, but rather look to your work to express your happiness outwardly and to share it with others.

The happier you feel, the less attached you will be to outcomes. Instead of trying to acquire money, possessions, or other material goods, shift your focus to self-expression. By focusing on expressing instead of acquiring, you will end up doing the very things that enable you to acquire whatever you want.

Even though you might not have millions of rands in the bank, start living the way you would live if you were financially set for life. Live the kind of life that would mean that even if you did win the lottery you would keep on doing what you were already doing. The money would simply expand your capacity but not the essence of what you were doing.

What would you do if you were already set for life? Figure out what that is, and find a way to begin doing it on some level right now. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • “How do I feel about my life right at this moment?”
  • “Am I feeling positive and passionate about life or am I stuck in the same situation, sacrificing my present happiness for the hope of a better tomorrow?”
  • “Am I becoming significantly happier and more fulfilled with each passing year, or am I just running on the spot trying to convince myself that someday things will be better?”

There is no someday… there is only right now. If your current life path isn’t a joyful one, take a different path. By making your present reality as enjoyable as possible, your motivation will increase because you will be working from a state of joy instead of a feeling of obligation.

How would I Help YOU Overcome Your Past and Begin to 'Live in the Now'?

The way that I work as a therapist and coach would be to help you think back into your past just enough so as to understand why you do what you do in the present. I work with your ‘head talk’ (those automatic negative beliefs we have about ourselves and the unhelpful messages we give ourselves). I find that once you can recognize your patterns and understand why you have them, it is easier for you to be conscious in the present.

Everything starts with awareness. Awareness of your automatic thought patterns which lead to automatic behaviour patterns is essential. The desire to change the past automatic thoughts and behaviour is necessary too. Accessing your deep emotions becomes progressively easier as your awareness develops.

I am then able to help you to practice your awareness; to become mindful of your thoughts and emotions in the moment and to consciously act (not automatically react) in the moment. When it comes down to it, your mind is the only thing keeping you from living in the present.

This is a long process and it is not easy to practice this sort of mindfulness, but it really is worth the effort in the long term as you are then more and more able to live in the now as an authentic individual.